Film: More Than Just Dance Lessons

By Terry Burant

Mad Hot Ballroom 
Director/Producer: Marilyn Agrelo
Writer/Producer: Amy Sewell

Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about a fifth-grade ballroom dance program in New York City schools, is more than a feel-good summertime film. I can’t wait for its release on DVD so I can use it to raise questions and teach multiple lessons in my Introduction to Teaching in a Diverse Society class.

But I wasn’t an immediate fan. A few minutes into the film, a white principal launches into a monologue about her students and their families that made me shift in my seat and cringe. She describes her students, mostly from the Dominican Republic, with a deficit view that highlights single-parent families, children “with issues” raised by grandparents, families where more than one generation lives in the household, and a 97 percent poverty rate. I was afraid that I was about to see a white savior narrative, one in which kids of color are saved through the heroic efforts of white teachers and the timeless discipline and grace of ballroom dance.

Then the dancing began. Four viewings later and still craving more, I now have my favorite kids, my most cherished moments, and a list of lessons this film can teach future teachers.

First, this film is a wonderful illustration of the joys of teaching and the best that learning brings. We watch children from three very different city schools as they learn to move to the beat of the tango, to follow directions (“feel the eye to eye connection,” “take your dance position”), to care about, cheer for, and accept one another. They develop competence and a vocabulary about this activity, learn to graciously take the stage, and they perform together like magic. It is a grand testament to the privileged moments that teaching and learning bring.

We see this joy explicitly in the tears of a young white teacher, Allison, when she talks about seeing her students “turning into little ladies and gentlemen.” We see it again in the cheers of all the teachers as they stand on the sidelines while their children dance in competition. We hear it in teacher Yomaira Reynoso’s proud voice as she explains “I’m not rich, but I am a teacher.” And we see it yet again as the dance instructors from the American Ballroom Theater’s Dancing Classroom program thrill to their students’ continuing improvement. We see it as well in the students’ self-reflective critiques of themselves, their partners, and their performances, and in the examples of lives turned around by participation and unexpected excellence in dance.

The film also demonstrates fine teaching. Yomaira Reynoso, a dedicated Dominican teacher from P. S. 115, effortlessly shifts from English to Spanish, expects the best efforts from her dancers, gets out on the floor and dances during each class, and speaks with heart about “not knowing what is hidden in each child” and how teachers and programs like this can unearth these hidden talents. She goes beyond the classroom and takes the girls on her school’s team shopping together for matching skirts when they are chosen for the final competition. While demanding that they pick out outfits with “no belly buttons showing,” she also solicits and attends to their fashion opinions.

Mad Hot Ballroom also made me rethink prior assumptions about the place of dance in schools to bridge cultural gaps and promote cultural understanding and respect. Even as a dancer myself, I’ve often critiqued dance as just one more shallow form of feel-good cultural celebrations, a surface-level approach to multicultural education. Yet here I see students from diverse cultures dancing in one another’s arms and watch their teachers infuse cultural knowledge and pride into the lessons of dance. I became a little more open to the transformative and community-building potential of dance.

The film also raises questions about gender, sexuality, and the complexities and tyranny of competition, although not necessarily in explicit ways. The traditional gender roles inherent in ballroom dance (for example: boys lead, girls follow) aren’t disrupted or challenged. In between dances, the film weaves precious glimpses of the children’s lives and opinions into the mix, and many of these vignettes illustrate the pervasive heterosexual orientation in dance lessons, school, and life in general. Although the heartbreak of competition is vividly expressed in the children’s tears and in their heartfelt debriefings afterwards, there is an unquestioning acceptance of competition as a cultural form throughout the film. But the structure of the competition itself, with a grand parade of all the dancers and prizes for everyone, the supportive refrains of all of the instructors, and even the names of the levels in which all the teams are either bronze-, silver-, or gold-level winners, help to mitigate the potentially nastier effects of competition.

More subtly, the film raises serious and important questions about the demographics of teaching and the persistent need for more teachers of color. As a teacher educator, I present the pre-service teachers in my introductory classes with statistics about schooling in the United States; this film brings these numbers and their possible meanings to light. The oft-cited cultural mismatch between an overwhelmingly white teaching force and an increasingly diverse student population is vividly illustrated when the middle-aged white women teachers of Forest Hills P.S. 144, the school that won the previous year’s competition, appear on screen talking about how much they love their giant traveling trophy. In contrast, there is no doubt that Yomaira Reynoso brings priceless insider knowledge to her school or that Rodney, a Latino male dance teacher in the film, has a unique ability to connect with his students, especially with some of the more reluctant boys. Mad Hot Ballroom is a useful tool for stimulating discussions about questions like: Can white teachers teach all children? If so, what do they need to know, or be able to do, to do this well? How can we change the face of teaching to reflect a more diverse nation?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the litany of ills listed by the principal in the early moments of the film, is challenged throughout. We see parents walking with their children and talking about sacrificing in order for them to have better lives. We hear children talking at length about their parents’ strict rules for them. At the final competition, the dressed-up family members cheer madly, hotly, for their children. This disrupts the earlier deficit script and speaks to the importance of connecting with parents and families.

Mad Hot Ballroom brings to life the action and color of New York City streets—from flower vendors to overflowing buckets of mussels and shrimp. And the children themselves take center stage, delivering insights on life as only fifth graders can: Emma, the young white girl full of statistics and explanations for every social issue imaginable (“young girls of 10 are the number-one target for sexual predators”); Wilson, a Dominican boy who recently immigrated to the United States and knows very little English, and the way in which dance opens the door for new friendships in an unfamiliar place; Michael, the chubby, clumsy white boy in his Batman T-shirt, commenting on life and love and gay marriage while playing endless games of foosball in his bedroom, complete with American flag bedspreads; and Amber, a Dominican girl who poignantly talks about her fears of growing up and expresses how right now “its fun to be 10” and to still “be a children.” Throughout the film, children speak freely about all that is on their minds—from drugs and gangs to boys and girls and hopes and dreams.

Yes, the kids are truly the stars of this show—turning initially awkward moves into the flowing dances of the rumba, tango, fox trot, merenque, and swing. It’s enough to make even the most uncoordinated dance denier find a partner, put on a little Frank Sinatra, and get out on the floor.

Terry Burant ( is an assistant professor in the department of educational policy and leadership at Marquette University in Milwaukee and is taking a modern dance class in between teaching courses in teacher education. She is an editor of Rethinking Schools.